The Wicked Farmers
William Bacon Stevens, 1857
"Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
"The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said.
"But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
"Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"
"He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time."
Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: "'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? "Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed."
He then began to speak to them in parables: "A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
"He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, 'They will respect my son.'
"But the tenants said to one another, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
"What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Haven't you read this scripture: "'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?"
Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.
He went on to tell the people this parable: "A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.
"Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.'
"But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. 'This is the heir,' they said. 'Let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
"What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others."
When the people heard this, they said, "May this never be!"
There are two aspects under which this parable may be viewed: one as it respects the Jews; the other as it regards the world at large. It was delivered in the court of the temple, to the chief priests and scribes who had gathered around Jesus to cavil at His words; and just after His triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
The Jewish application of this parable is evident from collateral Scripture and historical facts, as will appear from a very brief analysis. The "certain man," or "landowner," as Matthew expresses it, is God; and the "vineyard" is the Jewish Church. Under the appellation of a vineyard, David, Jeremiah, and Isaiah speak of their nation; and there is much show of truth in the supposition that our Lord, when he framed this parable, alluded to the words of Isaiah, "For the vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah His pleasant plant; and He looked for judgment — but behold oppression; for righteousness — but behold a cry."
The "farmers" to whom he let it out were the priests and Levites and scribes, to whom were committed the moral and religious culture of the nation. The going "into a far country," means in the original that He left them for a time, which indeed was done, when the Shekinah, the emblem of His glory, was removed from them. The sending of servants, "when the time of the fruit drew near," "to the farmers, that they should give him of the fruit of the vineyard," for the rent of the same, as was and is customary in Eastern countries, refers to the Prophets whom God sent to His people through the whole period of the Levitical dispensation, beginning with Moses, and ending, eleven hundred years after, with Malachi.
The treatment which these ancient ministers received is well described by the conduct of the farmers towards the servants sent to receive the fruits of the vineyard; they "beat one," "stoned another," "killed another," treated one "shamefully," "wounded" another, and "cast him out of the vineyard." Both the Prophets Elijah and Daniel complain that the Jews have slain the prophets with the sword. Jerusalem especially had this reputation, as our Lord testifies: "O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent unto you;" and Paul, when he enumerates the long list of worthies in his catalogue of the faithful, in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, says that, "Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated."
Elijah, Elisha, Ezra, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Micaiah, and Eleazar "had trials of cruel mockings and scourgings," Sampson and Daniel were in "bonds and imprisonment," Zechariah was "stoned" in the court of the Lord's house; Isaiah, according to ancient tradition, was "sawn asunder" with a wooden saw, by order of king Manasseh; the "Lord's priests" at Nob were hewn in pieces with the sword of Saul, and "the prophets of the Lord" were cut off by Jezebel, the wife of Ahab; Elijah, and Elisha, and John the Baptist, "wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins;" and all of them were more or less "destitute, afflicted, tormented;" for this was the way in which these wicked farmers, the Kings and Priests and Levites, treated the servants sent by God "to receive the fruit of the vineyard."
After repeated messages and great forbearance, the lord of the vineyard asks, "What shall I do?" and he resolves, last of all "I will send my beloved son; it may be they will respect him when they see him." And so in the last days of the Jewish economy, when temple, and altar, and synagogue, and priest, and Levite, and ritual were to be done away, and to give place to the higher, holier ministry, temple, and service of the Christian Church — God, who loved His vineyard notwithstanding the treatment which His servants had received, determined to give the Son of His bosom, "His only begotten" and "well-beloved Son," to die for His rebellious children. "It may be," He says, "they will respect my Son;" the dignity of the person sent and of the person sending, ought to inspire a reverential regard, and reason might have well argued, "they will respect my Son."
This Son came; He left "the glory which He had with the Father before the world was," the courts of Heaven, the worship of angels, and came to the farmers of earth to receive the fruit of His vineyard. "But when the farmers saw Him they reasoned among themselves, saying, This is the heir; come, let us kill Him, that the inheritance may be ours!"
Yes, Christ was "the heir;" "heir of all things," as Paul says; heir in His mediatorial character, and by Divine appointment; but in order to kill this heir, the chief priests and scribes and Pharisees "counseled together." It was the one vengeful purpose of their lives, the one great aim of their efforts, begun by Herod at the birth of this heir, and consummated by Pilate and Caiaphas when they hung Him on the accursed tree.
In pursuance of this foul design "they cast Him out of the vineyard," saying, "Away with Him," delivering Him into the Roman power, and with the cry, "Crucify Him! crucify Him!" they "killed Him" on Calvary!
"What, therefore," asks our Savior, "shall the Lord of the vineyard do unto them?" His audience, not as yet perceiving the force of the parable, replied, "He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will rent out His vineyard unto other farmers, who shall render Him the fruits in their season:" thus unwittingly condemning themselves, and pronouncing their own well-deserved doom. Nor was it long before their own sentence was carried into execution; for by the invasion of the Roman army into Judea, the vineyard of God's planting — the Holy City — was destroyed; its temple, the glory of the whole earth, was burnt with fire; its palaces were razed to the ground; its streets were filled with ruins; its walls were broken down, and with a havoc unparalleled in the history of the world, those farmers were destroyed by fire, by pestilence, by famine, and by the sword.
The siege of Jerusalem began about the feast of the Passover, one of the three festivals when all the males of the nation were required "to present themselves before the Lord:" and when, therefore, more than three million people were pent up within its walls. Of these, over eleven hundred thousand were killed, and nearly a hundred thousand others were carried captive into Egypt, Rome, and the colonies of Augustus. Not only was their land, the beautiful and almost consecrated hills of Judea, given to others, to the Roman, the Syrian, and the Egyptian — but their Church was broken up, the veil of its temple was rent in twain, its oblation ceased, its priesthood was abolished, its splendid ritual was done away, and those who were once restricted to the outer courts of the Jewish sanctuary — are now made to draw near unto God, even into the inner courts of a more glorious temple, built up by Christ of "lively stones," on Himself, "the chief corner stone," a temple whose only High Priest is the Lord of Glory, whose only sacrifice is "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world," whose incense is "the prayers of saints," whose choral service are the hymnings of the redeemed, whose "walls are salvation, and whose gates praise."
This parable must have tingled upon the ears of the priests and Pharisees, and when they came to understand its import, they immediately, "the same hour, sought to lay hands on Him, for they perceived that He had spoken this parable against them!" And had they not "feared the people" — they would immediately have caught Him, and cast Him out of the vineyard, and killed Him.
But this parable has a Christian, as well as a Jewish aspect. It is true that we have not killed the Prophets; we have not cast the Heir of the Lord of the vineyard out of the vineyard; we have not imbrued our hands in His blood; but if sin is the same in all ages, as we know that it is; if man's nature is the same through all generations, as experience proves — then need not the sinner congratulate himself that he is guiltless of the blood of Jesus, for their lies in his heart a principle which, if fully developed, would lead him to do precisely what the Jews did — slay the prophets, and cast the Heir, even Christ, out of His vineyard.
Both hate God,
both disobey His laws,
both set aside His Gospel, and
both say in their acts, if not in words, "we will not have this man to reign over us!"
Each human heart is a vineyard of God's planting, and through His Holy Word He has sent to you Prophets and Apostles to receive the fruit of your tillage. Have you listened to the words of His servants, and returned to Him the hire of your vineyard? Nay, has not Christ himself stood at the door of your heart knocking, and saying, "Rise and let me in!" — and have you not suppressed as much as possible all thoughts of Him, and refused Him entrance? And where, in the sight of God, is the difference between the Jews and yourself? But that, in the former, the overt act of insult and murder was superadded to the inward feeling of enmity and rebellion?
Everyone who does not receive Christ into his heart, does virtually "cast Him out of His vineyard!" Everyone who refuses to listen to the call of God's ministers, does in fact treat the servants of the Lord badly. Everyone who withholds from the "Landowner" the wages of righteousness, does, to that extent, strive to take from Him the inheritance. Each one of these assertions, as strong as they may seem, is borne out and sustained by the Word of God.
"He who is not with me," says Christ, "is against me." "He who hears you," says the same blessed Savior to His disciples, "hears me; and he who despises you — despises me; and he who despises me — despises Him who sent me." "Will a man rob God?" asks the Prophet Malachi; "yet you hate robbed me. But you say: How have we robbed you? In tithes and offerings!" That is, in not rendering to God that which He requires; and His requirement of each human being is, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and strength — and your neighbor as yourself."
There is no evading this responsibility on the one hand, and this accountability on the other — the one you must bear through life, and the other will meet you at the bar of God. And there you will be judged, not so much for what you did as for what you did not do; not so much for overt acts — as for the inward feelings of your soul towards your adorable Redeemer.
We have seen, though briefly, what the Lord did to the wicked farmers. And what shall he do to the impenitent now? They give no heed to the messages He sends; they yield to Him no revenue of praise; and in their hearts, they crucify His Son afresh, and "put Him to an open shame." They break His laws, reject His love, refuse His salvation, choose to "walk in the light of their own eyes, and after the counsels of their own hearts!" And what shall He do to them? The Apostle answers for us: "Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' and again, 'The Lord will judge his people.' It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!"
We are emphatically taught by this parable, that God will hold us responsible for our treatment of Jesus Christ. He held the Jews, the farmers of his ancient vineyard, responsible for their conduct towards his servants and his Son; and fearfully have they been made to endure, even to this day, the severity of that self-assumed curse, "May His blood be on us and on our children!" And they will continue to endure it "until the fullness of the Gentiles is brought in." But as the sin of unbelievers now is more aggravated, in many of its aspects, than that of the Jews in the time of Christ's earthly ministry — so will God, in accordance with the principles of eternal justice, hold every living soul, who has heard of Christ, responsible for his conduct towards that blessed Jesus.
Even those who take a comparatively low view of our moral relations to God, acknowledge that we are responsible for the right use of our time, our money, our talents, our influence. And shall God hold us strictly accountable for these, in one sense, minor and inconsiderable things — and not make inquisition of us for our treatment of that "unspeakable gift," his well-beloved Son? The supposition is impossible! God must cease to love "His only-begotten Son," must ignore His law, must annul His covenant, must vacate His attributes, must revoke His word, must change the very elements of His being — before He can allow the rejectors of Christ and His Gospel to go unpunished; and hence the force of that declaration of Christ, after His resurrection and just prior to His ascension, "He who believes and is baptized shall be saved — but he who believes not shall be damned."
Unbelief is the crowning sin of the ungodly! And until Christ is believed in by a faith which "purifies the soul" — all other changes will be of no avail.
We may correct this evil habit;
we may prune away that sin;
we may turn from debauchery to purity;
we may turn from profanity to reverence;
we may turn from covetousness to charity;
we may polish our characters until we shall appear beautiful to ourselves and others;
we may even have a sentimental regard for Christ, and experience a sort of respect for His ordinances, and join with external devotion in the praises of the sanctuary —
yet, build up these characters as high as we may, adorn them with every worldly ornament, set them off with every earthly virtue — unless Christ is formed in our hearts as the hope of glory — they are nothing "but white-washed sepulchers, which, indeed, appear beautiful outwardly — but within are full of dead bones and all uncleanness!"
On the other hand, no matter how evil may have been our former course, no matter what the turpitude of our character, though our sins are as black as midnight, and as numberless as the stars, and as vile as Hell itself; yet, if we now receive Christ into our hearts in the fullness of a faith that trusts in Him alone — all will be well! "Though your sins are like scarlet — I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson — I will make them as white as wool!" For this blessed Jesus had declared, "Him who comes unto me — I will never cast out."
Keep, then, this "beloved Son" no longer out of the vineyard of your heart!